Over MLK Weekend and in alignment with Nelson Mandela’s presidential win 25 years ago, Step Afrika! aptly celebrated their 25th “Anniversary Celebration” at Strathmore Music Center. This major landmark for the company was rightfully earned as the dancers showcased their ability to dance to all the right beats and elevate the standards for high caliber, exciting performance.
The show’s opening act featured Dem Raider Boyz Squad, an all-male step team from Eleanor Roosevelt High School based in Greenbelt, Maryland. The young performers committed to their craft with comical albeit entertaining and virtuosic skill; thus demonstrating that the future of dance and step are in good hands.
Through no simple feat, Step Afrika!’s remarkable celebration gave life to the pulse of a people through the incredible mediums of music and dance.
The first piece, “Idemo!” set a high precedent for the show and played to the company’s reputation as an exceptional step group. Choreographed by Christopher Brient, “Idemo!” translates to “let’s go” in Croatian, an appropriate name as the piece was inspired by the company’s 2015 tour to Southeastern Europe. The dancers executed complex step solos against dramatic lighting to create an anticipatory atmosphere. The synchronicity was sensational as the dancers turned every part of their bodies into living, breathing instruments. Entranced, I was only awakened by the delightful audience participation that completed the Step Afrika! experience and corresponds with step tradition.
The next piece, “Umngane” (or “friend” in Zulu) was choreographed by Makeda Abraham, Mfoniso Akpan, and Aseelah Shareef with live drumming led by Kofi Agyei. The number blended modern, West African, traditional Zulu dance, and techniques inspired by StepAfrika!’s co-founder, Mbuyiselwa “Jackie” Semela. The seamless melange of movement and live music produced a visceral experience for the audience. While the theatre’s sound tech failed to give justice to the drum’s precision and intricacies, the dancers and drummers navigated the technical difficulties with grace.
Following “Umngane” was “Wade Suite,” composed of two movements with live vocals by Sherise Payne. The first section, “Deacon’s Dance” was originally conceived as an Indlamu (traditional Zulu dance) with original choreography by Bongkosi and Ronnique Murray. The African American spiritual dance employed a chair that the soloist grappled with as she juxtaposed and reimagined the paradox between vulnerability and strength.
The second movement, “Wade” was choreographed by Paul Woodruff, LeeAnet Noble, and Kirsten Ledford with vocals by Matthew Evans, Vincent Montgomery, Sherise Payne, and Krislynn Perry. The section merged South African gumboot dance, collegiate stepping, tap, and African American spiritual song and dance to bring the audience along an emotional journey as the section moved from states of introspection to celebratory glee. The piece beautifully honored the role churches play in African American communities and employed visual symbols like kneeling, crossing of arms, and raised palms to make relevant social and political commentary. All this considered, the piece did not feel like a slight toward other iconic African American spirituals dances like Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” or Ulysses S. Dove’s “Vespers” as I feared; rather it paid homage and contributed to the ongoing narrative.
Switching it up, StepAfrika! proceeded with “nxt/step: hip hop,” to demonstrate yet another side of the dynamic company. The piece displayed projections by Miguel Asua with original score creation by Jonathan Matis and Jakari Sherman. This three-part movement played with props and time signatures uncharacteristic to stepping and performers acted as both musicians and dancers.
After this refreshing palate cleanser, the audience was ready to return to the company’s signature step style with “Passing 25” choregraphed by Ryan Johnson, Christopher Brient, Brian McCollum, and Jason Nious. The piece utilized energetic, rhythmic stepping that incorporated comedy, exciting false endings, and inventive cyphers.
The evening’s final piece, “Indlamu” was prefaced with a short look into the company’s tour to South Africa before diving into the traditional dance. The piece was choreographed by Jackie Semela with percussionists, Matthew Evans and Vincent Montgomery. Danced in Zulu attire, the warrior dance demonstrated the impeccable diversity of the company along with their admirable preservation of a beautiful art form.
Through no simple feat, Step Afrika!’s remarkable celebration gave life to the pulse of a people through the incredible mediums of music and dance. The sheer passion and commitment the company has toward their craft demonstrates why the company has stood the test of time.
Running Time: 100 minutes (no intermission).